Mushroom hunting, Melbourne

 It’s autumn here now in Oz. I’ve managed to chase clouds, leaving the UK in deepest, darkest January and arriving down under at the tail end of summer, catching only two months of glorious sun before the days shortened and the sky turned an all too familiar grey colour. But hey, I’m not complaining, the time for sunbathing in Melbourne may have passed, but with autumn comes other such delights. Granted, the first sight of fat, juicy blackberries is exciting, and the wait for chestnuts to drop from the trees seems to take an age when dangling tantalisingly close, but it’s the emergence of fungi that really gets me salivating come autumn. Mushroom hunting got me interested in foraging three or four years ago, and still no other wild food quite conjures the same yelps or yips upon discovery of a glut. This hunt was no different.

I’d been talking of going mushrooming with my sous chef, Jayne, for a while as we’d both started seeing urban ‘shrooms start to pop up in parks and on inner city scrub – the season had begun – but we’d never had corresponding days off, so it hadn’t materialised. Last Friday we did, however, and, along with Jayne’s girlfriend, Helen, we headed an hour and a half out of Melbourne to a National Park, of which I forget the name. 

We stopped on the way as I spotted a couple of Shaggy Inkcaps (Coprinus comatus) by the roadside, they were duly collected and off we went again. At least we wouldn’t go back empty handed, not that three small Shaggy Inkcaps were a prize find; edible but certainly not choice - they have a tendency to go slimy upon cooking. Crumbing and deep-frying, as you would a Parasol (Macrolepiota procera), is your best bet. See the recipe on my foraging blog, Going Wild, just here.

Saffron Milkcaps 

 Surprisingly, many of the European mushrooms I’m familiar with also appear in Australia, despite the markedly different flora. Perhaps unsurprisingly is that the vast majority of them appear in close proximity to introduced European species, most of which are species of pine. We went for a wander in the native gum forests and found a whole host of fungi, though none of them familiar, and as pretty as they were, we weren’t after native Australian species, we were after one European species in particular; the Saffron Milkcap (Lactarius deliciosus). You need only look at the Latin epithet, deliciosus, to know that they’re held in high regard as a good edible! 
 Saffron Milkcaps are nearly always found under pine (they’re know as Pine Mushrooms here) due to the mycelial connections they make with their host plant – beneficial for both mushroom and plant, the mycelial threads that join onto the root system form a two way nutrient exchange platform – the plant supplies the fungi with carbohydrates and in return the fungi aids the trees water absorption and provide nutrients like phosphorous and nitrogen via their mycelia. Whereas Saffron Milkcaps nearly always form these connections with pines, False Saffron Milkcaps (Lactarius deterrimus), a less well regarded, but still quite delicious edible, tend to prefer spruce. 

As we were driving our eyes were peeled, we passed numerous firs and other conifers but it wasn’t until we got to with ten minutes of the national park that we hit the jackpot; rows of plantation Scots Pine (Pinus sylvestris) right by the roadside, and just underneath them on a grassy verge, a tonne of mushrooms. 

Fly Agarics

We hopped out the car and the yelps and yips began; there were hundreds of mushrooms, of about 4 or 5 different species - some type of Russula, which exact species I do not know, Fly Agarics (Amanita muscaria), the classic fairytale mushroom, with its red cap and white spots. A very interesting mushroom actually; it can be edible, hallucinogenic or poisonous depending on how you prepare it, though that’s another story. Although we weren’t after Fly Agarics I was excited to see them as they’re usually a good indicator for Ceps (Boletus edulis) or other choice Boletus; they have similar growing preferences, but none were to be found, just a load of big, spongy fungi in the Suilleus genus, I’m not sure the exact species – they looked similar to Bovine Boletes (Suilleus bovinius), not the best for the pot, certainly not when growing amongst Saffron Milkcaps. 

Armed with a couple of bags, Jayne, Helen and I got picking and within three or four minutes had a whole bag full, it must have weighed 3 or 4 kilos – some of the most productive mushrooming I’ve ever done. We had enough for ourselves so moved on. We found some Field and Horse Mushrooms (Agaricus campestris and Agacirus arvensis, respectively), but they’d been enjoyed by maggots long before we had got to them. After another drive and a new spot with the odd Slippery Jack (Suillus luteus), a decent enough edible, we headed back to Melbourne. 

Helen + Saffron Milkcaps

Fly Agaric (Amanita muscaria)

I had work at 6 in the evening, so headed straight there armed with my bag of Saffron Milkcaps. Instead of taking my half an hour break, I chose to instead play with my ‘shrooms. After a quick clean with a dry towel, I liberally salted them and basted them with a sauce consisting of butter, confit garlic, brown sugar, and Worcestershire sauce. They went straight on the grill and were cooked over a high heat until charred, soft and sweating. Another liberal sprinkling of salt was needed in order to bring out the mushroom-y flavour.  The result? Quite delicious, if I may say so myself. They had a real meaty flavour and a pleasantly soft, if not slightly slimy, texture, enhanced by the areas that were charred and crispy. I feasted on ‘shrooms until my half an hour was up and then got back to work. A good day out. 

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